Sunday 16 April 2017

HMS Rattlesnake

Wandering around the enchanting Hong Kong cemetery at Happy Valley ones finds the memorial stone for William Brodie, RN, the commander of HMS Rattlesnake. He died aged fifty-six in June 1841. His grave is the oldest in the cemetery dating back to only five months from the de facto possession of Hong Kong in January 1841, during the First Opium War (1839-1842). Dr Edward Cree, the Surgeon onboard Rattlesnake, recalled Brodie's delirious death in his diary. He died from malaria, a debilitating disease that still effected British soldiery on the Gin Drinkers Line one hundred years later in December 1941.  The painting, below,  by Dr Cree depicts the military procession to the burial place in what was then an unspoilt Happy Valley.

Edward Cree (Forgotten Souls - A social history of the Hong Kong Cemetery) 
He was buried at that place before the Happy Valley Cemetery became an official cemetery in 1845, and at some stage, his coffin was exhumed and he was reburied at the Wan Chai Protestant Burial Ground and then relocated again in 1889 to Happy Valley. The Wan Chai cemetery was only used from 1841 until 1845 when Happy Valley was officially opened. At the time of the closure of the Wan Chai cemetery, some fifty graves (all from 1841-1845) were relocated to Happy Valley. The name Happy Valley was thought to have been derived from its use as a euphemism for cemeteries. 
   I wondered what was HMS Rattlesnake's story with such an aggressive but memorable name. The ship's artistic Surgeon, Lt Edward Cree, prolifically produced such beautiful watercolours of the pre-digital world of the early 19th century. It turned out that the ship was a 28-gun sixth-rate corvette launched at Chatham Dockyard in 1822. She had been ordered for the Royal Navy in 1818, and her keel laid down in 1819. She was one of a class of fourteen similar vessels known as Atholl class corvettes. The corvettes were similar to a frigate with one main gun deck, and further guns placed on the quarterdeck. Rattlesnake had ten 32-pdr cannons on each side of her main gun deck,  and six 18-pdrs on her quarterdeck and two 9-pdrs on her forecastle deck. Here's how she looked in 1853 as depicted in the Illustrated London News.
 HMS Rattlesnake depicted in Illustrated London News February 1853

We know that during the period 1827-1829 she was stationed off the Greek coast during the Greek War of Independence. The war was fought to liberate Greece from the Ottoman Empire. Britain, France and Russia supported Greece. Rattlesnake's commander was Captain The Hon. Charles Orlando Bridgeman who later became a Vice Admiral. The ship's logbook for this period,  kept by Midshipman Talvera Anson, still survives in the New York Public Library. 
   In 1834, HMS Rattlesnake under the command of Captain William Hobson was serving on the East Indies and China Station. A naval station that covered the Indian Ocean and the China Coast. In 1836, Rattlesnake was dispatched to Australia and New Zealand. In 1838 she returned to England. We next see her on the China Station during the First Opium War (1839-1842) at that time under the command of William Brodie and with Surgeon Dr Edward Cree recording her adventures through his diaries and watercolours. Other corvettes of the Atholl class on the China Station included North Star, Alligator, Samarang and Nimrod. A monument in Happy Valley Cemetery commemorates the death of Lt Benjamin Fox who died in May 1841 following cannon shot wounds incurred whilst leading a landing party during the attack on the high ground north of Canton. HMS Nimrod was the last survivor of her class being broken up in 1907.
   When Hong Kong was acquired by the British Crown in January 1841 - Palmerston had criticised Captain Elliot the Plenipotentiary and Superintendent of Trade for not getting enough concessions from the Qing dynasty court. He regarded Hong Kong Island as a "barren rock with hardly a house on it",  and which would "never be a mart for trade." Dr Edward Cree on Rattlesnake took a similar view. "a mountainous, desolate-looking place with only a few fishermen's huts to be seen." The main habitation was a placed called Chek-chu, now known as Stanley. The oldest graves in Stanley Military Cemetery date back to this precarious time on the edge of empire. 
   In 1845, Rattlesnake was converted to a hydrographical survey ship and between 1846 and 1850 took part in a voyage of discovery and marine survey in the Antipodes, under the command of Captain Owen Stanley, and which was documented in detail in a journal by John MacGillivray, the botanist and in paintings by Oswald Brierly the ship's artist. The Assistant Surgeon Thomas Huxley was a naturalist and the papers he wrote on Rattlesnake established his reputation as a scientist. He later worked closely with Charles Darwin and was one of his strongest supporters. It was during this voyage that Rattlesnake rescued Barbara Thompson (1831-1916) from a small island north of Queensland. She had been shipwrecked from the cutter America some five years earlier and had lived amongst the local tribes who were thought to be cannibals. One of the tribe members had taken her as plunder for a wife, but she had been treated well by the tribe. She would have been about 14 years old when taken. She had come out to Australia as a child with her family on the immigrant ship John Barry travelling in steerage class. At the time of her shipwreck, she was living with a sea-captain in Brisbane. The Rattlesnake brought her back to Sydney where she was reunited with her family.

HMS Rattlesnake in 1853 by Oswald Brierly
As for Rattlesnake, she was finally broken up, where her life began, at Chatham Dockyard in 1860.